Winter Solstice is here: Pax Saturnalia!

Pax Saturnalia
Loose translation from Latin: Peace of Saturn

Despite what some may say, the mythological story of Christ is not “the reason for the season.” Europeans have had celebrations around the time of the Winter Solstice (20th or 21st December; this year 21st) since before recorded history. It is the time of the longest nights, when people cling together. It is also the time when food—recently harvested—needs to be eaten, stored, or thrown out. It is a natural time for a festival of caring and feasting in advance of the approaching winter.

My favorite such observances of the winter solstice is the Roman Saturnalia. It  starts today (17th December) and lasts for the next seven days. In ancient times it was celebrated with public banquets, gift-giving, parties and carnivals all over the empire. Around 50 BC, the poet Catullus called it “the best of days”, which Andy Williams would echo almost exactly 2000 years later, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

My favorite part is how the holiday overturned Roman social norms where masters provided table service for their slaves. It was a time of great joy and frivolity. Saturnalia is a festival of light leading to the winter solstice, with the abundant presence of candles symbolizing the quest for knowledge and truth. This renewal of light and the coming of the new year was celebrated in the later Roman Empire at the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun”, on 23rd December.

The holiday remained popularity  into the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, and as the Roman Empire came under Christian rule, many of its customs were recast into or at least influenced the seasonal celebrations surrounding Christmas and the New Year.

So this year, I wish you a bright and cheerful winter solstice and hope for a better 2018.

Pax Saturnalia

How maps work: A primer for Trump supporters

TL;DR: Maps represent land area, not population density. Therefore the amount of red vs. blue on a Presidential election result map is misleading unless the map accounts for population density in some way.


Over the past year, I have engaged in debate with several Trump supporters who, when confronted with the fact that Donald Trump did not win the popular vote, and in fact received 3 million fewer votes than Hilary Clinton, immediately point to a map like this one, claiming that the immense amount of red on the map proves how popular Trump is.

There’s only one problem with this argument:
Land doesn’t vote, people vote.

Maps represent land area, not population density, so it wouldn’t matter if there was only one tiny blue dot on the map. What matters is how many people live within that area and how they voted.

A fairer representation of the voting distribution would be something like this map, where the state’s size in the map is shown relative to the number of votes cast.

notice the big circle between Virginia and Maryland. That’s Washington D.C. which, despite being a tiny speck on the first map, has a population larger than Alaska.

However, even this map is deceptive since:

a) The red is mostly concentrated in the center, making it look larger than it actually is.

b) As a color, red tends to be more visually prominent than blue, also making it look larger than the blue.

c) This map doesn’t show how close the races are in each state, only showing the “winner take all” electoral college tally. So, Trump might have only carried a state by a few votes, while Clinton carried her’s by thousands, and this map wouldn’t indicate that.

One way to account for these issues is to use shades of red and blue to indicate the strength of the support in a given area, as with this map.

However, the best way to present the popular vote, is an old-fashioned bar or pie graph, where you can clearly see the actual amount of votes each candidate received.

This chart also shows the number of people ineligible to vote and who simply didn’t vote, which gives us an even more honest—and depressing—view of U.S. Voting in 2016.

Unfortunately, with a straight graph like a bar or pie, we lose all geographic perspective to help us understand were people where voting for a particular candidate. To overcome that, the map shows the county-by-county vote, but with population indicated using height. Although there is still a lot of red, it is at least in some part set off by the fact that the red counties are rarely very tall.

The important thing to remember here isn’t that maps are best suited to show location, not population, so arguing popularity based on the amount of land area the people who voted for Trump happen to occupy makes about as much sense as electing a realty TV star to the most important office in a democracy: none at all.

You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Halloween 2017 Reading: “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

I try to read a great work of horror or the Macabre every October. This year I selected Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which, like so many books with a reputation, is much more deep than the elevator pitch most people know about it.

I am always surprised by the books when I read them, and better for it. Frankenstein was much more moving and meaningful, and Dracula much more farcical.

Fortunately, Gray has much more in common with Frankenstein than Dracula. It is not a simple, shallow tale of a vain man retaining his youthful beauty, but of a young man learning about the vanity of youth.

Although Wilde’s portrayal of women is painfully Victorian, this can be viewed in light of the truth he brings to light about the pomposity of the men of that age and privileged place they felt they held, whether that was his intention or not. They treat woman as either super or sub human, but never just human.

For Dorian, he moves from the super to the sub-human view as parable of how many men treat woman from youth to supposed maturity without finding the honesty of woman as fully actualized people.

In the end, this lack of introspection about relationships is what really ages his Portrait into the wretched state it ends up in. The cruelty and degradation reflected in the image comes about as he hurts those around him, but his own face is spared those marks, becoming the symbol of his conscience.

Do our bodies reflect our past transgressions? That may be too simplistic an explanation, but makes for an intriguing premise for Oscar Wilde to play around with.